Review: 43rd Anniversary of “Titicut Follies”

Released in 1967, “Titicut Follies” gave audiences a look at the mistreatment of patients at Bridgewater Hospital for the criminally insane. Since today marks the film’s 43rd anniversary, Sam Garcia takes a look back and reviews the unsettling film, banned from general distribution for over 20 years.

What do you get when you combine Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with a documentary crew? You get Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies.” Unlike Kesey’s novel from 1962 (or the 1975 film), Randle McMurphy doesn’t show up to start an uproar and fight back against “the man.” Jack Nicholson (who played McMurphy in the film) doesn’t come to the rescue and shake up the system. We’re left with a raw look at the mistreatment of patient-inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane

Meet Vladimir

One of the inmates we meet is Vladimir, diagnosed with schizophrenia paranoia. During a conversation with one of the doctors, he tells him that he doesn’t need to be kept at Bridgewater anymore and should be sent back to prison. The doctor brushes him off, saying that if they were to send him back to prison, he’d be back the same day, maybe the following morning. Vladimir criticizes the psychological test given to him; the test asked questions about how many times he “went to the toilet” and whether he believed in God and loved his mom and dad. Of course, the doctor laughs it off and tells him that he needs to stay. In a later scene, Vladimir has a group meeting with another doctor and some other workers. Again, he pleads his case, but this doctor’s takeaway is that he’s having an “episode.” The doctor decides to prescribe him more tranquilizers. Apparently, antidepressants – like the ones Vlad is taking – take away depression but also uncover paranoia. Sure, doc. 

Patient Neglect

Aside from being brushed aside like Vlad, the patients aren’t well taken care of. The hospital workers rarely bathe them, and they lock most of the patients in their rooms, naked. Every morning, they let patients out of their rooms to dump their little metal containers (I’m assuming the containers are their bathrooms). When one of the patients refuses to eat his food (three days without eating), they shove a tube down his nose and feed him like that. The problem is, they’ve run out of Vaseline and mineral oils to put the tube into his nose. What do they do? Well, the doctor asks if they have butter, which they have plenty of.

Cinematography and Editing

The cinematography made me feel like I was there, walking around and observing everything. What put me off was how casual the workers were, like they weren’t doing anything wrong. Just another day at the office, I guess. The editing, especially with the musical shows, was very jarring – in a good way! The first few minutes, where we watch one of the musicals, make you think that this will be a fun-fun happy documentary about how great these institutions are. Spoiler alert, they’re not. It creates this nice (would you call it nice?) juxtaposition between the horrors of the institution and the musical performances. My favorite use of this splicing is the last scene of the movie. After seeing a patient layed to rest in a cemetery, we cut to one final musical show. The performers thank the audience and hope they enjoyed the “entertainment.” 

Final Thoughts on Titicut Follies

America during the ’60s was a trip. The Civil Rights movement was taking off; the government was testing a “mind control drug,” LSD, on its citizens (Ken Kesey took part in these experiments). People were starting to question America’s involvement in Vietnam, so people were adopting this “man vs ‘the system'” attitude. Like one of the patients said, when America didn’t like someone, they’d slap ’em with the “commie” label. That more than likely played a role in some of these patients, like Vladimir, being institutionalized. While he certainly did have a mental illness, the psychological tests patients received were just ridiculous. How does believing in God or loving your mother and father have to do with mental illness? It’s no wonder patients’ conditions worsened: the only medical help they received was being doped up on tranquilizers and antidepressants. If you locked me in a room for over a year, naked with just a container to pee/poop in, I’d go crazy too.